Society and Gender Role Expectation in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
A rare occurrence in the late nineteenth century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman separated from her husband in 1888 and divorced him in 1894. She was remarried again to her first cousin George Houghton Gilman and it lasted from 1900 until 1934 due to his sudden death. In 1932, Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer and she committed suicide in 1935, one year after the death of her second husband, by inhaling chloroform. Gilman’s death was widely speculated to be in line with depression, a common mental health problem among women in the 19th century.
Today, Gilman is best remembered through her written short story which is 6,000-word in length entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which primarily depicts her real life experience. The story is narrated from the perspective of the main character whose husband is a doctor. The narrator’s husband diagnosed her with “temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency” common among women in the 19th century.
The story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” talks about the loss of voice of a woman within the society in the 19th century. The author emphasizes this by mentioning that the narrator was put in isolation and controlled over by her husband. Isolation was not the best thing for the narrator because she knew it only worsened her condition, which her husband was entirely oblivious about. She was confined in an old nursery room where she learned many things about her isolation and hated it in the first place. “No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long” (Gilman 5). However, prior to this, she made necessary suggestions that the old nursery room would not contribute positively on her condition, but it would be other things instead. “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (2). Despite of this desperate move of the narrator, her husband was firmed on his stand and she was instead locked up inside the old nursery room.
Gilman’s separation from her first husband was a depiction of how the narrator would love to stay away from the old nursery room and be completely separated from it. That was a very act of trying to stay away from man’s control, dominion and do something significant. “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already” (Gilman 5). The narrator just wanted her freedom and the ultimate treatment for her nervousness and depression was not the isolation in an old nursery room. It was the ultimate suggestion she desperately explicated to her husband though.
The author tried to emphasize that the loss of voice of a woman in 19th century was due to the existence of a male-dominated society. Society expected much more from men than women which substantially put the former in control over the latter in almost every aspect, just as how the narrator’s husband locked her wife up in an old nursery room. It was a strong depiction of how men inflicted limitations against every woman’s capacity to prove her self. “It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. When I get really well, John says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit; but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now” (Gilman 7). The author also tried to emphasize the old nursery room as a way of treating woman incapable about something great just like how the infants rely their survival on adults. “Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able – to dress and entertain, and other things” (5). The author pointed out that the narrator’s mental problem was a depiction of how women struggled to fight the prevailing society’s expectations of gender role and it was a revolutionary way to gain significant voice of women in the society. In fact, this is evident from the fact that in 1930’s women did not experience greater economic opportunities, sexual freedom and equality to men in many aspects compared today in the 21st century (Murrin et al. 681).
Today, many women are actually trying to prove something great. Just like how the narrator suggested to her husband that the ultimate treatment for depression and nervousness was not the isolation, many women today have succeeded to prove things differently from how they were viewed in the 19th century. As stated earlier, Gilman’s separation from her husband was viewed rare occurrence before, but she managed to do it, which eventually depicts how she integrated the idea of how the narrator successfully proved to her husband that the isolation within the old nursery room was not the best idea for her treatment.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. New Hampshire: Forgotten Books, 1973.
Murrin, John M., Paul E. Johnson, James M. McPherson, Gary Gerstle, Alice Fahs and Emily S. Rosenberg. Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People: Since 1863. 5th ed. Massachusetts: Cengage Learning, 2010.